The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Days 4 and 5

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The joys of Sundance are obvious (movies movies movies). But of course, there are also rigors and hazards to the festival experience (dry red eyes, five-minute meals, lack of adequate rest). Sleep an extra hour in the morning, and you might miss something great. Wait too long before queueing up for a screening, and you might not get in, even with a fancy press badge and a pleading look in your eye. (Bribes also don’t work.) So scheduling what to see and when, as well as coordinating with almost mathematical precision the shuttling from theater to theater, is of the utmost importance. Needless to say, it’s an artform I am still perfecting, with lots of help from our amazing producer, Cristina Garza. When I haven’t been watching films, I’ve been interviewing directors and actors. And the past two days have yielded a bounty of insightful conversations with Gregg Araki (The Living End, Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face), Nacho Vigalondo (Time Crimes), and Tom Kalin (Swoon, Savage Grace), all of which are now up at the main site. Check them out!

Two films with similar themes have left a particularly deep impression on me so far. The first is Ballast, a minimal drama by writer-director Lance Hammer about Lawrence, a suicidal man (Michael J. Smith) living in poverty in the Mississippi Delta. Through a series of events that unfold slowly during the first half-hour, we begin to understand the source of his pain, and the nature of his strained relationship with a tough single mother (Tarra Riggs) and her twelve-year-old son (JimMyron Ross), who’s quickly edging into a world of drugs and violence. There’s a Charles Burnett–like quality to Hammer’s storyline, which scratches at these characters until they begin to redden and burst, but Hammer’s stripped-down approach and inspired use of nonprofessional actors hews closer to the work of Carlos Reygadas and perhaps a kinder, gentler Bruno Dumont. The film’s greatest asset is its deeply rooted sense of place; the Delta in winter has tonal qualities that Hammer hoped to capture and transmit purely through images. And in some ways, his characters are merely its flesh-and-blood analogues, anchored in a landscape of sorrow. Ballast is, to put it simply, a gorgeous and soulful film.

The other film that wowed me, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water, I saw early yesterday morning, after marching through a swirling snowstorm with a lidless double espresso. (Bad idea.) While a number of documentary films about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have debuted recently, including Spike Lee’s marathon postmortem, When the Levees Broke, and Ed Pincus and Lucia Small’s searching road movie, The Axe in the Attic, this doc locates its themes of dignity and perseverance in the persons of a truly irrepressible couple, wanna-be rap artist and amateur videomaker Kim Roberts (a/k/a Black Kold Madina) and her husband, Scott. Incorporating footage Kim shot of the Category 5 storm from inside her ravaged house, the film follows the Roberts as they attempt to survive amid the absurdity and indifference of a federal emergency-response system that utterly failed the residents of the Ninth Ward—not just during the crisis, but weeks and months later. Rebuffed by the National Guard at a crucial juncture, deprived of funds by an enfeebled FEMA, they opt to seek refuge in Memphis, along with Brian, a recovering addict and devout Christian. Surprisingly, they never once strike a tone of bitterness. The harshest thing Kim has to say is offered as a matter-of-fact observation: “If you don’t have the money, and you don’t have the status, you don’t have the government.” Indeed. Pulling their punches, Lessin and Deal keep the cutaways to President Bush, FEMA director Mike Brown, and New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin to a minimum, but stitch in enough press-conference footage to give us a sense of just how profoundly grotesque the difference was between what was said and what was done on the ground. And then there’s Kold Madina’s performance of her autobiographical, post-Katrina rap about hustling and self-reliance, “Amazing.” That she is. Without a doubt.

Written by eyemaster

January 30, 2009 at 10:24 pm

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